Police on Thursday arrested 120 ultra-Orthodox protesters in a wave of rallies across the country, as several thousand hardline anti-draft demonstrators took to the streets in protests that caused major traffic disruptions in Jerusalem.
In the capital, the afternoon rallies continued well into the evening hours, before being dispersed by police. Protesters blocked traffic and the light rail near the city’s central bus station, snarling traffic at the entrance to the city and causing multiple delays on the tram line.
Police said 120 people were arrested during the protests for blocking roads and the light rail, as well as for failing to obey police orders.
Police appeared to be acting with restraint after accusations of excessive force at a recent protest.
An unnamed law enforcement official told Channel 2 police were refraining from using force to clear demonstrators in order to avoid violent clashes.
“The demonstrators are looking for video clips with violence by police in order to enlist donations from the United States,” the unnamed official said.
Some ultra-Orthodox protesters chanted “we’d rather die than be drafted” at the demonstrations.
“The state wants to silence all the Jews who want to study Torah,” said one man, who looked to be in his 40s and gave his name only as Tzvi.
“Lately they have seen the (ultra-Orthodox) population growing, so they want us to serve in the army and be absorbed into the general population.”
Earlier, dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters also blocked Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square, a key intersection leading to several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the capital. Police said protesters there burned trash and pushed it into the street.
Small groups of officers occasionally entered the protest near Jerusalem’s central bus station to remove those who appeared to be stirring up the crowd, an AFP journalist reported.
The recent protests, in their fourth day, were sparked by the arrest of two yeshiva students for failing to show up to the Israel Defense Forces draft offices.
During the morning, demonstrators blocked Route 443 near the Shilat Junction close to Modiin and were then removed by police.
Similar protests also occurred in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh as part of the so-called “day of rage.”
Sources in the Jerusalem-based Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, known in Hebrew as Eda Haredit, which has tens of thousands of affiliated ultra-Orthodox followers across the country, said the group’s leader Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss planned to join one of the expected demonstrations in the capital, the Hebrew-language Walla news website reported.
The sources said earlier they planned to swamp the jailhouse with arrested protesters and had asked those attending the demonstrations to bring with them their phylacteries and prayer shawls — ritual items used for morning prayers — as preparation for spending the night in custody, the report said.
The so-called Jerusalem Faction, organizers of the protests, said they planned to push back against what they claimed was a police crackdown this week that has seen dozens of protesters arrested.
“We are talking about a significant increase in severity of the measures against us and we will respond in kind,” the group said according to the Hebrew media Kikar Shabbat website that is aligned with the ultra-Orthodox community.
On Wednesday the faction said there would be a “day of rage…in light of the continued arrest of Torah world prisoners, and following the Israel Police harassment of the detainees and the transfer of deserters to the Military Police,” Kikar Shabbat reported.
Six people were arrested Wednesday evening as they tried to block the path of a prison service vehicle taking the two draft dodgers to the military police. Another three ultra-Orthodox protesters were arrested in the city of Ma’ale Adumim.
Forty protesters were arrested Tuesday in the city of Bnei Brak for attacking officers, “blocking roads and causing public disturbances,” police said at the time.
This week’s protests were the latest in a series of demonstrations by ultra-Orthodox protesters over the arrest of members of the community for failing to show up to Israel Defense Forces draft offices.
The protests have often seen violent clashes with police as they try to remove demonstrators who are blocking roads. Protesters have accused the police of using excessive force, including during a protest on Monday in which an officer was filmed running through the crowd with a gun drawn threatening to shoot demonstrators.
A separate video Monday night showed a female soldier attacked by a group of ultra-Orthodox as she tried to move her car through a crowd in Jerusalem.
Earlier this year the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined equality. The decision raises the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with political implications.
However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for preparations for the new arrangement — which also provides the government with the opportunity to pass a new law.
Ultra-Orthodox political parties, holding key positions in the ruling coalition, are likely to draft new legislation that could seek to override the court ruling and keep the exemption in place.
The issue is part of a decades-old debate over whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying at yeshivas should undergo compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women must serve for 24.
The ultra-Orthodox oppose serving for a variety of reasons, with the most extreme believing a Jewish state is not allowed before the coming of the Messiah. Others argue that study of religious texts is just as important to Israel as military service or that ultra-Orthodox soldiers would be confronted with irreligious behavior.
AFP contributed to this report.